Iran

16th September 2009



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I am currently holed up in Zahedan, Baluchistan, waiting for a military escort to take me into Pakistan. It is the most godforsaken barren wasteland I have ever seen. Time has no meaning here.

Iran has been fun. The country has much to recommend it - a fascinating culture, stunning monuments and hospitable people. Also, for obvious reasons, there are no tourists. It was interesting to formulate my own opinions of a country that is seen by many in the West as a naked threat to world peace.

Iran has a reputation for religious intolerance and entrenched sexual inequality, but things are changing for the better. A new edict has been signed allowing women to attend football games for the first time in 30 years. This corrects a grave injustice - the fact that police officers were technically breaking the law every time they dragged a rape victim onto the pitch at half-time to be beheaded.


Baluchistan
Zahedan. A blind beggar mutters grimly to nobody in particular and rattles his cup. Flies swarm around his mouth and eyes. From a barred window above comes the crying of a sick child. The sky reveals nothing of itself behind the impenetrable haze that hangs over the city. The invisible sun raises steam into the air from the sewage channels that run along the deserted streets. A siren wails in the distance as a starving donkey, its knees shaking with exhaustion, staggers into a filthy alley to die.

This is not a nice place. The city is full of drug smugglers, drug addicts and big-bearded Afghans with guns. It used to have the fitting name Dozda (“thieves”) but it was changed by Reza Shah to Zahedan (“ascetics”).

Ninety percent of the worlds heroin comes through Iran. The Iranian government spends $400m a year trying to control the problem and has stationed 30,000 men along the Afghan border. The smugglers are ruthless and well armed, and the conflict has cost thousands of lives on both sides. Most of the drugs used to be carried by bikers riding across the desert at night without lights, but the army has been digging long lines of trenches to discourage this means of transport. Since then, the drug runners have come up with an imaginative solution. They train camels to home in on a location in the desert like pigeons. They then surgically implant several kilograms of opiates into their humps and release them on the Afghan side of the border. It is simply impossible for the government to account for every camel wandering through the deserts of Baluchistan.


Iranians
My experience was overwhelmingly positive. I would say that the Iranians are the friendliest people I have encountered with the possible exception of the Syrians.

They are super-polite. I had one of the longest “after you!" "no, please, you go first" standoffs in history with the old curator at the contemporary art museum in Tehran. Everyone you talk to is interested in your opinion of the country and people you’ve just met will ask personal questions like “how much do you earn?” and “how many girlfriends have you had?”.

Although there is an independent republic of Azerbaijan, the majority of Azerbaijanis live in Iran, where they make up 25% of the population. They are officially well integrated, but all but one of the Azaris I spoke to wanted to be part of a greater Azerbaijan. Kurds are 10% of the population here and Lors, Baluchis, Arabs and Turkmens a further 2% each.

There is a real sense of untapped potential in Iran. The population is highly educated but there is not much for them to do. The largest non-government industries are carpet weaving and pistachios. 70% of all university students are women, yet their employment rate is less than 20%. Education is never wholly wasted but that clearly makes no sense. Underemployment is just as big a problem. A guy in Shiraz who sold me a carpet had a degree in physics.

The veil is compulsory in Iran. Girls compensate by wearing a ludicrous amount of make-up. There is also a national obsession with nose jobs that is quite amazing. 90,000 noses are remodeled in Iran every year. A nose job costs between two and four thousand dollars and is such a status symbol that lots of girls wear the tell-tale post-op bandages even if they haven’t had the procedure.




Driving
Could I be a better driver? I don't think so. Less aggressive? Arguably. More prudent? Perhaps. But BETTER? Impossible.

Iranians on the other hand, are terrible drivers. They combine the technical incompetence of the Egyptians with the speed and contempt for road rules of the Libyans. The Lonely Planet makes a case on their behalf: “Your taxi driver never indicates or uses mirrors. Look at the tiny gaps he is negotiating without recourse to the brakes, the countless situations from which he extricates himself and you start to realize these guys are actually really good drivers.” Ok, this argument would hold water if they didn’t have many accidents. Sadly, Iran has one of the highest road mortality rates in the world. I witnessed about 10 separate accidents while I was in Tehran, most of which resulted in severe injury because no-one ever wears a helmet or seatbelt.

Thank-you Lonely Planet, but I think I’ll stick to my own assessment – Iranians are abysmal drivers, possibly the worst on earth and bat-shit crazy to boot.


The Clerics & Islam
Although considered a wild-eyed fanatic in the West, Khomeini was in fact charismatic, politically astute, impeccably honest and deeply religious. He may have been wrong but he had integrity, something that can’t be said for many politicians.

Nevertheless, most of the clerics are just another bunch of old men who want to be in charge. The fact that they claim legitimacy from God is irrelevant. They use censorship, imprisonment of political opponents and secret police just like any other good dictatorship.

My problem with the revolutionary brand of Islam is that it is so joyless. Iranians are a singularly joyful people but there is no levity or humour in the official sermons, just a list of clapped-out nay-sayings. Their God is a bit like the God of the Old Testament, an irrational egomaniac with binoculars and a bad temper.

I never discuss religion with locals. Within seconds you are deep in a jungle of unquestioning dogma, through which no machete of reason can hack a trail. I should mention that several Koranic students I met went out of their way to be friendly and welcoming, perhaps because they are conscious of their reputation for rabid intolerance.

I recently read about a significant new study that suggests our emotional well-being depends on limiting choice. To make a long story short, the results indicate that the more choices we have, the more unhappy we are. People who have no alternatives to Option A will soon come around to liking Option A, whereas people with choices spend their time worrying that they should have gone for Option B or C or D. Clearly, the correlation between greater happiness with less freedom has some rather interesting political implications. Anyway, the point is that Westerners are forever trying to find a model for their lives. Islam provides that model. The Koran prescribes every aspect of a Muslim’s existence, from how he goes to the toilet to how he makes love to his wife.

We may live in a free society, but there are a few snakes in our Garden of Eden too. The guardian council abusing its position by blocking reforms is not a million miles away from the tyranny of unelected civil servants in Brussels.

Our political system stars the politician as celebrity and the voter as consumer. Religion has been replaced as the opium of the people by the all-pervasive media circus with its prancing clowns, and policy is determined by advertising experts rather than the politicians themselves, who are too ignorant and lacking in conviction to stand for anything.


I would totally vote for this guy.


Tehran
The traditional visa issues meant I had to stay in Tehran for a week. The city is absolutely huge with a population of 20 million, and traffic that rivals Cairo and Bangkok. Orientation is easy. The North, which occupies the higher ground, is clean and affluent, while the south is poor, filthy and congested.

I have been in polluted cities before but in Tehran you can really smell and taste it in the air. It catches in your throat as you weave through the homicidal traffic in a rattling deathtrap of a bus. Almost 10,000 people a year die from the atrocious air quality.

Except for the national jewels museum, which has some very impressive sparkly objects, there are no sights worth mentioning. The ex-US embassy, now renamed the “US Den of Espionage” is interesting because of everything that happened there but you can’t go inside, and the Shrine of Imam Khomeini looks like a shoddily built aircraft hangar.


The Desert
I spent a few days sleeping in the desert. It has been a few months since I last did it. This time I was by myself, which was very peaceful. “A great silence overcomes me and I wonder why I ever thought to use words”. (Rumi)

The desert city of Yazd is a gem. Wandering through the badgirs, kuches, elegant archways and bazaars of the old town without concern for time or direction is an enchanting experience. It is home to the largest surviving population of Zoroastrians in the world. Their fascinating religion revolves around veneration of the elements. Rather than pollute the earth with the bodies of the newly dead, they leave them exposed on the dakmeh-ye-zertodhiyum, “the Towers of Silence”, to be picked clean by vultures.


Iranian Politics
Ahmadinejad came to power at a time when people were frustrated with the clique of clerics, generals and their cronies that had become the new elite. His success was driven by a man-of-the-people image and by painting his reformist opponents as decadent and out of touch. His key policy commitment has been to use oil revenues to expand the state sector of the economy in an effort to distribute wealth more broadly throughout the country. Many poor people in Iran see him as their champion against a government that moved away from the egalitarian principles of the revolution.

Abroad, Ahmadinejad is reviled and ridiculed in equal measure. The vultures of international journalism have left the bleached bones of his many gaffes shining in the desert sun. He doesn’t help his own cause, appearing on television like Quasimodo, bearded and disheveled, looking like he sleeps in his car, and launches into misguided rants with the charm and focus of a drunk shock-therapy patient. Recently, he has been eagerly destroying his vestigial credibility by claiming that there are no homosexuals in Iran.

Virtually every Iranian I met volunteered a negative opinion of the government. I never raised the issue. “We're trapped in the stomach of a sick animal" One told me, “And the animal is bleeding to death.” I am aware of a selection bias here. People who speak English and are interested in talking to foreigners are more likely to have reformist views than average.

When allegations of electoral fraud first emerged, the response of the Clerics was a flat denial of any wrongdoing. They then organized a victory rally for Ahmadinejad in Mashad which was so poorly attended that the official newspaper used photos from his previous visit to Mashad four years ago. When they were caught, the government flatly denied that too. They learned this lesson from Bush and learned it well - the best evasive tools in politics are a straight face and a massive pair of balls.

The resulting protests, the largest since the revolution, were violently suppressed. I arrived well after they ended but was handed some pro-government leaflets by the Basij. Sadly, they are too glossy and un-absorbent to be of any real use.

Discontent has spread like ripples on a pond into every corner of Iranian society. Rather than addressing the issues, the government is expanding the police force. This makes sense in the way that some Americans think prisons are more cost-effective than schools. There are three main sources of dissatisfaction:

  • Militarisation of the state. Many Iranians are unhappy about the confrontational stance taken by the clerics and the influence of the generals.

  • Lack of freedom. Iran has a young population who want greater freedom. Freedom from censorship of the press, freedom from pervasive mismanagement of the economy and freedom to do what they want, wear what they want and say what they want.

  • The Economy. Iran’s economic performance has been disappointing, even during the great oil boom years. This is mostly due to the inherent shortcomings of a planned system - 60% of the economy is controlled by shadowy state religious foundations which are corrupt and inefficient.

    Hunter Thompson said that a good politician can smell the hammer coming down like an old sailor smells a squall behind the sun. Ahmadinejad needs a decongestant. The system is starting to work against itself. Ahmadinejad is picking his sons-in-law and other family members for the cabinet. Other government posts are filled by Basij or children of martyrs from the war with no qualifications. The fact that college graduates with highly marketable skills are unable to find a job has made these selective hirings deeply unpopular.

    Significant differences of opinion are also emerging in the ranks of the clerics themselves, but those at the top are strangely frozen. They plough on regardless, defending themselves by means of show trials of journalists and televised confessions extracted by torture. Years from now, when the dam breaks and their swiftly eroding political peninsula is finally washed away, they will look back and realize that this was the moment for compromise.




    E-Mail
    Ahmadinejad has a blog, www.ahmadinejad.ir, which is translated into several languages. He rarely updates it, but claims to read all correspondence. I have little to do in internet cafes, as most of the websites I frequent are banned here, so I thought I’d send him an email. No reply as yet.


    Have a seat, Mahmoud, there are a few things I’ve been meaning to chat to you about.

    First of all, tremendous job pretending to be an intellectual flyweight throughout your career. A masterful deception. The ranks of unbelievers do not see the light of God that surrounds you when you speak, just a bearded midget with the brainpower of a plastic fern.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your recent speech setting the world straight about historical events, like the fact that Alexander the Great was on a mushroom-collecting trip that went horribly wrong. When I was living in London, there was a chap in my street who favoured your look and oratical style. Sadly, he wasn’t running the country as he was too busy drinking Kestrel Super and shouting at cars from a piss-soaked bus shelter.

    I see that you are not fooled by the lies of the infidel crusader, Obama, may the fiends of the pit service him for all eternity with a strap-on dildo of burning iron. His name is a curse on the lips of the righteous. The supposed wish for a happy Noh-Ruz concealed a threat as thinly veiled as an Iranian child bride.

    Speaking of which, congratulations on lowering the marriable age for girls to nine. I would urge you to consider lowering it further, perhaps to five. Just look at how those little hussies parade around, shamelessly naked under their three boiler suits, black cloak, gloves and facemask.

    The real reason I’m getting in touch is that I wanted to discuss the situation in my home country of Austria. The moral climate there is truly dreadful. We have fallen so low that several ministerial positions are held by gays. Yes Mahmoud, gays. But change is afoot.

    After ten fruitless years trying to summon the awesome presence of our master Satan by reciting the Lord's Prayer backwards and smearing apfelstrudel over our naked bodies during midnight wife-swapping parties in the Wienerwald, we have decided to join the global caliphate.

    Come closer Mahmoud, we must whisper. The country is ripe for an Islamic revolution. Dissent is brewing in the badminton clubs and amateur dramatics societies of Vienna. We are ready to fall into the waiting arms of Islam. I realise there is nothing in the Koran about pork-dodgers in Austria but never mind. No doubt Nostradamus predicted it, if we look carefully enough.

    I ain’t fronting Mahmoud. If you could just provide us with some expendable fanatics to do the actual fighting, several thousand packed lunches and some poisoned toilet paper (double-ply), we’ll get cracking. Then we too can enjoy an economy in which canned tuna is a luxury item and a legal system of the flaming torch and pitchfork variety.

    There’ll also be a ban on laughter except when celebrating successful terrorist actions against the US or at public executions.

    Nostradamus, badminton, tuna - it’s all coming together, eh Mahmoud? Death to America!

    Yours,

    H

    P.S. Are you on Twitter? I would like to discuss my plans for a combination walk-in abortion clinic and stoning pit. Now THAT idea’s got legs. Am I wrong?



    Iran & the Rest of the World
    Imagine you are a British plumber with a wife and children. You’re living happily in Leeds. Now imagine that Iran becomes the most powerful country in the world. Suddenly every film at the local cinema is Iranian, your children listen to nothing but Dastgah music and you find your job is in danger because you don’t speak good enough Farsi. Your traditions and values are gradually being supplanted by those of Iran and people are wearing pyjamas in the street. If you don’t, you feel out-of-touch. How happy are you going to be about the situation?

    Against a backdrop of failed diplomacy and media smear campaigns, Iran has become the pre-eminent international pariah state. The unconditional support of the US for Israel is the key to understanding why.

    Iranian accusations of foreign meddling in domestic politics have some credibility. Iran has seen significant interference by western powers since the 18th century when the Quajars welcomed the East India Company into the country like Montezuma embracing Cortez. Given what has emerged about US involvement in the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, I wouldn’t be in the slightest bit surprised if the CIA is providing large sums of money and advice to the anti-government movement in Iran. This is merely in line with the traditional American policy of choosing other countries’ leaders, bombing their civilians and trying to force them to be just like us.



    As the Japanese say, the reverse side also has a reverse side. These days, the Muslim readiness to take offense means that we all have to say that Islam is a religion of peace. This is patently not the case. Buddhism is a religion of peace. Islam, like Christianity, spread across the world through conquest and subjugation, and has a long history of being aggressive and militaristic.

    It seems highly likely to me that the Iranians are trying to develop nuclear weapons. Their two greatest enemies, Israel and the US have them, and the example of Pakistan is clear - once you have the bomb, everyone treats you differently. The World Bank has repeatedly bailed out the Pakistani economy because a nuclear country cannot be allowed to go bankrupt. For everyone else, the thought of a nuclear Iran, with its long tradition of martyrdom, is not a pleasant one.


    Best Moments
  • Camping under the stars in the Kaluts. The desert here is famous for strange sand castle formations that are formed by wind erosion. They end up in some pretty amazing shapes. There was one that looked just like a huge… Anyway, it was great.

  • Reading poetry at the tomb of Hafez in Shiraz. Iranians are great lovers of poetry and Hafez is a national institution, quoted by beggars and Ayatollahs alike. I spent a very relaxing few hours in the surrounding gardens watching locals reciting his poems.

  • Participating in Zurkaneh, an ancient form of Iranian aerobics & weight training.



  • Driving the Aras river valley. I was briefly arrested for taking pictures of the border but it was a great day.

  • Finding out that Diesel costs 2 US cents a litre. The downside of these kind of excessive subsidies is that it makes people very wasteful. Truck drivers leave the engine running while they have lunch. In Turkemnistan gas is free but you have to buy matches, so the Turkmens leave their stoves on permanently.

  • Trekking in the Valley of the Assassins. Ulagu Khan had such trouble taking these castles (one held out for 17 years) that he ordered them to be pulled down, stone by stone. This means that there is actually very little to see in terms of surviving structures, but the main attraction is the valley of Alamut, which is beautiful and wonderfully remote. Swimming in Evan lake was a highlight.



  • Shiraz. An old man with a kind face came over from his farm to give me a bag of peaches as a gift when he saw me taking a nap in his field.

  • Esfahan. More amazing buildings than you can shake a stick at. Their onion domes dominate the skyline. Everyone should see Imam square at some point in their lives.

  • Attending a student party in Shiraz. I rolled up looking cool in my mud-spattered landcruiser, Metallica blasting from the one working speaker. It didn’t look like much was going on, but it turned out they don’t play loud music for fear of being raided. Actually, it was pretty good party - miniskirts, alcohol and raunchy dancing. Everybody went up on the roof at midnight to shout anti-government slogans.

  • Beekeeping at Mount Damavand. I was so impressed with the honey in northern Iran that I went on a mission to find out more about it. Spent a fascinating day with the beekeepers learning about the process and tasting honey right out of the hive.



  • Persepolis. I had moderate expectations because I knew that Alexander had burned the city as revenge for Darius’ destruction of Athens. What remains, however, is remarkable. A totally different aesthetic to what I had seen before.

  • Playing chess with the craggy greybeards in a cafe in Rascht.


    Worst Moments
  • A lorry drove over my foot in Tehran. The nail was torn off my big toe and my shoe was so bloodstained I had to throw it away. My toe was black and the size of a goose egg. It’s been a couple of weeks ago now but it still looks pretty gruesome.

  • My most precious possession, the fridge-freezer, has started going on the blink. Are you testing me, Waeco CF40? ARE you, sir?

  • Saw a young Kangal sheepdog chained to the door of a warehouse near Hamadan. I was there for three days and it was chained up day and night, barking savagely at me every time I passed. Dogs need exercise and company, and chaining one up by itself results in a vicious, unsocial, lonely dog. Somehow it really bothered me. In Tunisia, I remember being livid after a seeing the Jardin du Paradis, a local zoo named by someone with a keen sense of irony. I saw one worse in Colombia but it was still god-awful. A reminder of why I generally never visit zoos and further evidence of the poor Muslim record for animal welfare.

  • Far too hot to sleep comfortably at the moment. Sweat can’t get out of my body fast enough and I end up flopping around on top of the covers like a fish dying on the deck of an ocean trawler.

  • Got stuck in a salt lake near Kashan. Again! It seems I am someone who needs to learn the same lesson more than once. I blame the guide. Anyway, we would have been royally screwed but for the fact that some camel shepherds found us and helped dig the car out.






    Food
    Iranian food is neither the best nor the worst I have had. Like the Turks, Iranians are obsessed with picnicking. They use any excuse to eat outdoors. This is not in itself weird. What is weird is the fact that they never take the trouble to find a nice secluded spot. They’ll spread a rug out absolutely anywhere - in the corner of a multi-story car park, on a traffic island or in the middle of the street.

  • Kofte Tabrizi. The best thing I ate in the Iran. A huge meatball containing a boiled egg and stewed fruit with tomato sauce poured over the top. A bit like an Iranian scotch egg,

  • Fesenjun. Chicken in a sauce of grated pomegranate, walnuts, eggplant and cardamom served on a bed of rice. Always excellent.

  • Mirza Ghasemi. A fabulous combination of eggplant, tomatoes and garlic from Gilan.

  • A delicious liver kebab in Rascht. Unpromisingly called “morcelled meat food” on the menu.

  • Ardabil Halva, also known as “black death”. A sweet black sludge reminiscient of Christmas pudding.

  • The famous Rahnama dairy in Tabriz has absolutely the best yoghurt I have ever tasted, bar none. Served with a chunk of honeycomb. Divine.

  • The worst thing I had was Iranian Pizza. Always the same – thick flavourless base, no tomato or cheese and a generous helping of revolting spam-style sausage.


    Quote from something I’m reading
    "Islam. In its quietude, it rests in the bosom; in its function, it fills the universe. It penetrates fine dust, yet it is not tiny; it encloses heaven and earth, yet it is not vast. It clears away and removes colors and guises, and it splits and dissolves emptiness and nonbeing. This is because it fully returns at root to the fountainhead of clear virtue, guiding and leading the return to the path of the Real. Thus may you escape and depart from the ocean of illusion and go back again to the other shore." (Wang Daiyu - The Tao of Islam)


    Conclusions
    I was given some booze by a couple of Armenians, which I need to get rid of before the border, so I think I’ll have a Caipirinha. There isn’t any Cachaça so I’ll use whiskey instead and I haven’t got any limes so I’ll have to substitute this powdered milk. Down in one.

    Christ on a stick! That’s the worst Caipirinha I’ve had since Fuji Seminar House.

    Tonight’s job is to reorganize the car. There seems to be more and more space in it. I have lost, broken or sold about third of my possessions since starting the trip. Fortunately, I don’t much care about ‘stuff’. I don’t wear a watch or jewellery, I hate shopping and don't really care if I lose things, apart from my wallet, passport and car keys. Getting attached to things and worrying about where they are is thankfully not in my makeup.

    Recent news from Pakistan has me wetting my pants with fear. Then again, I've just worked out what those little straps on my backpack do, so life is pretty good. It's all a matter of perspective.

    (Btw - I won't be putting this up until I am in Lahore, so if you're reading it you can safely assume that I crossed Baluchistan without being kidnapped)

    No agenda for a couple of days. Carpe diem, they say, but I can’t spend every moment of every day trying to squeeze the most out of it. There is a time for rushing about, a time for resting and a time for staring into space and doing absolutely nothing. Tomorrow is that time.

    Small bright lights are starting to illuminate the square outside my hotel and the big bright light is sinking in the west. I have nothing more to say. It was worth my time coming to Iran.